When people ask me, “How should I memorize my poems?” there are a few tips I have to offer.
- Write a memorable poem. Not all poetry is ideal for live reading. The good news is, if it works for performance, it will probably work for your memory too. Before you finalize your lines, experiment with your voice and gestures. If the words flow better in a different order, then let them flow.
- Get up. The body is a learning tool. In order to get the poem stuck in your brain, you are going to learn it with your whole body. So pick a private space and get up, move around, sway or stomp or wildly gesture your way through the words until they come to life.
- Use rhyme and rhythm. The musicality of poetry in its more traditional forms makes it easier to memorize. Who remembers rote learning “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” or something like it? You couldn’t do that with modern free verse. Rhyme will cue your brain to remember the next line; and rhythm will help you settle into the flow. Remember, rhymes don’t have to follow a strict scheme.
- Be authentic with your voice. You may feel that slam poetry or spoken-word has a certain style to live up to; that you need to be bold, loud, or have lots of street cred to pull it off. That’s bollocks. Your voice will sound and feel real when it is your own; in fact, it’ll be harder to memorize your work if you don’t listen to it.
- Re-write, re-write and re-write. If you’re feeling inspired and the poetry ‘just comes’ to you, then you’re lucky. But most work that feels worthwhile to me takes a lot of writing. The process of writing makes certain choices clear: it has to be this word not that word; it is this thought that follows upon that one. And that also makes the poem live in my memory; because the choices make sense.
- Rehearse. I’ve been lucky as spoken-word poet because I got my training as a musician. This taught me not only about rhythm and lyricism, but also the discipline required to get work ready for performance. A good rule of thumb is three-in-a-row. First break the piece down into short chunks, and rehearse each chunk until you can do it flawlessly three times over. Then do the same for a whole piece. Leave enough time to rehearse every day for a week before a performance, and you’ll be set.
I like the old phrase for memorization, “learning by heart”. There is a process of letting the work settle into the heart. It can be hard work, but at the end of the day it should still feel like your poem; a direct connection to the heart. Learning your own poems shouldn’t feel like a chore or a brain-teaser. If it does, use this as a chance to check in and ask, “Do I want to say this differently?”
There’s more fascinating discussion to be explored on memorization, poetic techniques, and the way our brains process and retain information. I happen to subscribe to a not-very-popular view of education, that rote-learning of poetry or patterns can have benefits for the student. There’s even evidence to suggest that it might help us become more creative: check out a brief read on the art of memorization by orators in medieval culture. As Alan Jacobs summarises, “Today people will tell you that memorization is the enemy of creativity; these medieval thinkers understood that precisely the opposite is true: the more you have memorized the greater will be your powers of invention.”
*Feature image: Illustration from Edwin D. Babbitt’s The Principles of Light and Color (1878) — public domain. Source